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Justice Speeches

Keynote Remarks to the Lifeline Annual Dinner and Awards Ceremony
Retired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
May 12, 2022

Thank you, Executive Director Carrie Dotson, for the introduction and for inviting me to join you tonight to celebrate the good work by Lifeline, its board, staff, the partners in funding and services and the people you serve.

I am glad we are able to meet in person.  It is important to come together and celebrate steps – large and small – on a path to recovery and reentry. The way forward from incarceration or a dependency disorder to a contributing and valued member of the community can be a long and arduous path. Recognizing the milestones is important.

Though you have not been able to have this annual gathering to hand out awards in the last couple of years, I know you have been working together – in many ways working harder than ever – to continue your important work. That is clear in the state of the agency remarks by (Board) President Gordos. Congratulations.

Your concerted efforts to lift people out of poverty – to help them gain the tools to self-sufficiency – is a never-ending battle. Tonight, as you recognize achievement, also celebrate the foundation you have laid, and continue to reinforce, particularly in assistance to people who are coming from incarceration.

When you help someone to pay the utility bill, you may be helping them keep a roof over their head.  Keeping the lights on may mean they study to build skills, then you help them with a suit to wear to apply for a job, and a gas card to get to the interview.  And once they land that job, the financial literacy education helps them to budget and start building a bit of a rainy-day fund.

Bridging the gaps matters because it is often a step in a bigger process of moving out of a difficult situation.

As a county prosecutor, as a magistrate in probate court, and as a common pleas judge in Summit County, I learned first-hand that many of the people who wind up in court are one paycheck away from desperation.  Or desperation has arrived.  Not bad people, but people who made poor choices.

So, I encourage courts to continue to work with the community action agencies for things like getting federal eviction relief funds to people who are embroiled in court eviction actions.  It’s why we created the Eviction Diversion toolkit – which can guide mediation and settlement, so landlords get paid and people keep a roof over their head.

In the moment you are giving advice on dressing for a job interview, don’t think for a minute that it is inconsequential.  Because even if you don’t see it in the moment, the success is in the people.  Like the people getting awards here tonight, they are the pride of the entire community. They are the source of the hope and faith you put in the next person you assist.

There are a lot of Ohioans getting a chance to do the hard work of sobriety, recovery, and rebuilding.  I’ve fought hard to ensure people who come to the court system with some of society’s toughest underlying problems are in the right place to get help.

Today, there are over 220 specialized dockets in Ohio courts.

In Lake County, there are three certified specialized dockets for mental health and drug courts. And in Geauga County, Judge Carolyn Paschke’s drug docket was recently recognized by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.  It is designated as one of ten mentor treatment courts in the country.  Over the next three years, the Geauga County team will assist new or growing courts to learn innovative best practices.  Having a leader such as this in your community is something to embrace and of which you can be very proud.

But it is not working everywhere.

Statistics suggest that in a time of a mental health crisis, someone is more likely to encounter police than get medical help.

When a defendant comes before a court for an arraignment there is usually the matter of bond to be considered. The inability to pay a bail of $250 is a reality for many Ohioans. We know that even 3 days in jail may mean the loss of a job. And then the parade of “horribles” begins. After being fired, they lose their place to stay. There may be repercussions with Children’s’ Services. It is a spiral that only goes downward.

It is why I believe in bail reform.  The Constitution guarantees your freedom if you are not convicted of a crime. Yet, the majority of people in jails have not been convicted of anything.  Most are too poor, and the price of bail is prohibitive. How are they expected to assist in their defense? Or hold own one or more jobs to keep their family going until the issue is resolved?

And once someone is caught in that spiral – particularly if they are poor, or a member of an ethnic, racial, or cultural minority – it becomes increasingly harder to get out.

Mental illness prevails in jails and prisons. Studies from various sources show, conservatively, more than 40 percent of prisoners have mental health issues and nearly 30 percent are serious mental illness. Layer on top of that a drug problem.  In the state prisons, according to their year end 2021 report, 16% of prisoners are serving time for drug possession and another more than 9 percent for drug trafficking.

Housing people with drug and mental health issues will not change the trajectory.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 19,000 people in state and federal prisons at year-end 2020 who were unsentenced.  That’s about 2% of the total U.S. prison population. And that doesn’t count the county jails.

If someone is a danger to society, and they need to be removed from society, there are mechanisms for that.  But if someone is battling a darkness that stems from illness or poverty, jail can be treatment of a symptom which may only exacerbate the symptom.

You are the people there to help pick up the pieces when they come out.

I admire the work you do.  I know there are lots of tough days helping people through reentry, recovery, and helping people find their footing – to get medical care, employment, housing and more. You tackle the most complex of society’s problems.

I promise you, you are not alone.  There are many champions in the judiciary who are working to improve the systems, too.

Overall, there is evidence – historical, statistical evidence that the U.S. Criminal Justice System is fairer and more effective than ever. Still, there is more we can do. Our history supports the fact that we can change and do better.

How?  Well, we must start by looking at the numbers – more specifically looking for patterns in the numbers.  The business leaders in the room can back me up on this… you measure your performance against your goals by looking at your numbers.  And you find opportunity by looking at the trends in those numbers.  Why can’t government evaluate itself the same way?  By looking at our goals and measuring our performance by the data.

That is what the Sentencing Commission is doing today.

In conjunction with the University of Cincinnati, they have developed a standardized system of collecting sentencing data.

But sentencing data is just the beginning. I believe we should collect data on arrests, charges, pre-trial status…bail or no bail or high bail.  The latter two are often the same thing. Then the disposition of the case and sentence success …community control, recidivism, sobriety.   That  does not exist in our criminal justice system today.

Simply put, the standardization of data will reach into the silos and connect the information.

There are currently pilot programs in place in local courts. And Lake County is one of the pilot counties.  Just one more example of how your community is helping to set a good example in improving our systems of government.

We continue to have more and more judges across the state learning about the proposed data collection and offering to participate.  That’s because judges know that sentencing is one of the most complex parts of their job.

The Ohio Revised Code that covers sentencing has grown to over 3,000 words in the last 25 years.  But it is not just more words.  It has grown from 16 sections to 39 sections – with 46 subsections today. As I said sentencing is complex.

Those of us who have been entrusted with the duty to lead and participate in the criminal justice system have an obligation to make sure there is public trust that the system delivers justice for all…and data collection will make that happen.

The establishment and widespread use of databases will advance the fair and equitable administration of justice.

Whether it is reentry, drug or mental health treatment, employment, housing, and more, continue to work together to fight poverty and improve the quality of life for Lake and Geauga Counties.  Continue to help those coming from prison and jail to re-enter your community.  And use your knowledge and experience to strive to improve our system of justice.

I’m going to close with something that happened to me recently.

I was picking up a prescription at the drive thru window of a pharmacy. The prescription wasn’t ready, and I had to wait a bit. Suddenly I see the pharmacist come to the window. Oh, good I thought, they don’t have the medication or there’s an issue with the insurance. The gentlemen asked, Are you Maureen O’Connor…Judge Maureen O’Connor?

What I suspected would come next was a comment on the redistricting case…something that had been in the news quite a bit. But that wasn’t it at all.

In 1993, my first year on the bench in Summit County Common Pleas Court, I had sentenced the man. I did not remember of course.

He thanked me. He thanked me “for showing him mercy.”

He had a substance abuse disease and was arrested for a crime he had committed as a result. I suspect that I allowed him to participate in intervention in lieu of conviction. A diversion program that provides treatment, supervision, counseling, and reporting to a probation officer for one, two or more years. It is an alternative to prison and if successful there is no conviction.

He said the mercy was a second chance…a chance for him to get sober and stay sober for the intervening two decades. The alternative allowed him to maintain his profession, to raise a family, and support them as a productive and contributing member of society.

His only regret is that more people with the exact disease of substance abuse don’t take advantage of the path to sobriety that is a path to a wonderful future.

I was blown away. Out of the blue… after 20 years to say, thank you Judge O’Connor you showed me mercy.  Those words deeply affected me.

I was lifted by the encounter. Grateful that he had reached out, and grateful that he has remained sober because of an opportunity I gave him. But we all know, and I told him, I only provided the opportunity…you did the hard work.

You and the treatment community and family and friends are what turned that opportunity into 20 years of sobriety, success, and a happy life.

That really made me think.

To think about the number of good, salvageable human beings who can and should be helped.

People who are the people helped by Lifeline and its partners who are service providers.

People who, with a little help, can become miracles.

Thank you and God bless.

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